Google’s Book Heaven

As an avid reader of Regency romances and a life-long student of history, I find Google Book Search to be an enormous electronic literary cookie jar. It is an important resource for both my leisure reading and my ongoing research.

At Google Book Search I can search or browse literally millions of books and magazines on any topic under the sun. I can read excerpts of many of these books and magazines. In some cases I can read the entire book. With a Google account, I can also create my own personal library of these digitized publications. If you have not yet investigated Google Book Search, you may find it is great resource for you, too.

Google Book Search began as the Google Print Library Project in the autumn of 2004. Google had partnered with several prominent libraries around the world with the intent of digitizing these libraries’ collections to make them available online. By 2005, many thousands of books had been digitized, but this effort had attracted controversy which resulted in two lawsuits filed against Google on the issue of copyright violation. These lawsuits were brought by organizations representing authors and publishers, because Google was digitizing not only books which were out of copyright and thus in the public domain, but they were also digitizing books which were still under copyright. But late last year those issues were resolved and Google will be working with authors groups and publishers to find an equitable system for presenting digitized copyright materials.

Fortunately, the lawsuits did not stop Google and its partner libraries from continuing to digitize their collections. Nor did it stop other large libraries from partnering with Google. By the end of 2008, it was estimated that Google had over seven million books online, and they had also added a number of popular magazine titles as well. Most importantly, all of these materials are fully electronically searchable, making all of this information available to anyone with an internet connection and a browser.

The information seeker can choose the simple search, entering a few relevant keywords into the search box. Or, there is an Advanced Search feature available, into which one can enter as much information as one knows about a book or magazine for a more precise search. Or, you can simply browse the collection by clicking one of the category links in the left navigation pane of the Google Book Search home page, or clicking one of the randomly presented thumbnail covers in the main section of that same home page.

There are four different types of results which might by returned by any of these searches. The "Full view" is usually a book which is out of copyright and thus in the public domain. These books are made available in their entirety and can be downloaded as a PDF file. This is especially handy for those with a dial-up connection, as they can download the book to read it off-line. The next result type is the "Limited preview," in which some, but not all, of the pages of the book are available to view. This is most common with books which are still under copyright. In many cases, only text can be viewed, images are not displayed. The "Snippet view" is the next result type, in which only the book’s bibliographic citation and keywords and phrases which reflect the books contents are displayed. If the book has a Table of Contents, it is available, but no pages are available in this view type. The final result type is the "No preview available," in which only the bibliographic citation and if the book has one, the Table of Contents is displayed.

Obviously, the most useful results are those with "Full view," as you can read the complete book online, or download it for offline reading. I have found a number of Regency-era books available in "Full view," in the Google Book Search. For example, I found the first edition of The Picture of London, a Regency London guide book which I have reviewed here in the Redingote. I also found an edition of Samuel Leigh’s competing guidebook available. All of Jane Austen’s novels are online, including first editions of both Pride and Prejudice and Emma in "Full view." On the other hand, most of Georgette Heyer’s books are listed, but only in "No preview available," as they are still under copyright.

The "Full view" books are most convenient, as you have immediate access to their contents. But books available in the other view types are still valuable. In the "Limited preview," the Table of Contents is typically included, and there are usually enough pages displayed that one can get a sense of whether this book contains useful information before purchasing a copy, or seeking one in a local library. Even books available in "Snippet view" or the "No preview available" provide helpful information as one knows that any of these titles which are returned in a Google Book Search contain the keywords or phrases which were used for that search. However, if you are limited to online research, you can set Google Book Search to return only books with "Full view" and "Limited preview," or just "Full view" only. With those choices you will know that any books returned in the search results will have at least some pages displayed.

On the book display page, the book, or parts of it, are displayed in the "Read this book" tab on the left side for both "Full view" and "Limited preview" books. On the right are a series of links which can be used to download the book if it is in "Full view," or display it in plain text, which is useful for those with impaired vision. In this same pane are links to view the Table of Contents, if available, to buy the book from various online vendors, or find it in a library, and for those books with any pages displayed, there is a link one can use to flag a page as unreadable. On the "About this book" tab is displayed the bibliographic citation and the Table of Contents, if that books has one. For books in "Snippet view" and "No preview available," there is only an "About this book" tab, there is no "Read this book tab."

Perhaps the most useful link in the book display page is the link to "Add to my shared library." If you are logged in to your Google account, when you click this link, the book you are viewing is added to your personal online Google Book Search library. (If you do not have a Google account, getting one is free and easy.) Once you have added a book to your library, you can add notes about it, label it for sorting, or write a review. Your library will be available to you from anywhere you choose to login. This library can be shared with others by sending them the link. If you wish, you can even set up an RSS feed to advise those with whom you share your library that new books have been added. You also have the option to import lists of books into your library by the ISBN. Full details about that feature and more are available in the Google Book Search Help Library FAQ.

I adore books. There is no way I will ever prefer to read a book in an electronic format when I can hold the real thing in my hand. But for old, scarce books, such as first editions of Jane Austen’s novels, or Regency-era London guidebooks, which I am ulikely ever to see in person, Google Book Search is a real treat. There I can browse through books published in and about my favorite historical period without having to leave my home. In addition, the books of many of my favorite Regency romance authors are available in "Limited preview" on Google Book Search. These previews are typically more than I might find in an excerpt on the author’s website, giving me a good idea if I want to purchase their newest offering. I have recently noticed that the Borders online book site is making Google Book Search previews available from within its site so I am not the only one who finds it useful. If you have not yet had a look at Google Book Search, I highly recommend a visit. Truly an excellent example of how the "information superhighway" was intended to enrich our lives.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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